At the time of the Latin American wars of independence, the Imperial Spanish army employed men in ranks like Capitán (captain), Sargento (sergeant) and so on, between the King and the lowliest footsoldier. Wikipedia suggests that "Royal Ordinances for the Regime, Discipline, Subordination and Service in his Armies" of 1768 was in place, but the Naopleonic Wars may have occasioned some reforms.

What were the military ranks used by the Spanish Empire?


2 Answers 2


Spanish Commissioned Ranks

The biography of Joaquín Blake y Joyes on the Napoleonic Series traces his promotion history as:

  • 1774 enrolls as an officer cadet (at 14 years age!)

  • 1775: commissioned as Subteniente de fusileros;

  • 1777: appointed as maestro de cadetes

  • 1781: promoted to Subteniente de granaderos (likely a lateral recognition from a command perspective much as a modern medal for gallantry, though I cannot prove that just now);

  • 1782: promoted to Teniente (likely provisional, as not yet employed in that rank);

  • 1784: promoted to vivo Teniente (ie with an actual posting, and thus pay, at that rank);

  • 1787: promoted to Teniente de granaderos (again likely a lateral move from a strict command perspective);

  • 1791: promoted to Capitán;

  • 1793: promoted to Sargento Mayor (sic - This is a fully commissioned rank; see my history notes below.)

  • 1795: promoted to Teniente Coronel and then to Coronel (likely provisional, as see following); then he first requests retirement (sources differ on whether this was accepted or not), and subsequently requests to be made vivo Coronel rank (ie with both pay and appointment).

  • 1802: promoted to General de brigada;

  • 1810: promoted to Teniente General (skipping Mariscal de campo!);

  • 1811: promoted to Capitán General (a four-star rank until a reorganization of the Spanish ranks in 1999; see below).


  1. Before the modern profusion of ribbons (a 19th century phenomena) it was common to distinguish both officers and other ranks at the battalion level by a lateral promotion into the grenadier company. We see Blake y Joyes being recognized twice with this distinction. It may or may not have included a pay raise.

  2. The rank of Sargento Mayor is at this time the proper title of a fully commissioned rank superior to that of Capitán and inferior to that of Teniente Coronel. Ie it is exactly equivalent to our modern (English) rank of Major and the the modern Spanish rank of Commandante.

  3. The rank of Mariscal de campo is already longstanding in Spanish usage by 1790, directly junior to a Teniente general, unlike the precedence of its literal translation into English as Field Marshal. Likewise in historical Austrian usage the ranks Feldmarschall and Feldmarschallleutnant cannot be assumed to have the same seniority as more modern English and Prussian (German) usage.

  4. From the time of Philip V until a reorganization of 1889, the Spanish style for the two-star rank was Mariscal de campo as noted by the promotion history of Blake y Joyes' contemporary Francisco Javier Castaños:

    At 10 years of age, Castaños received the rank of capitán de infantería, which King Carlos III granted him in attention to the merits of his father. He went on to study, as a young officer, [at] the Seminario de Nobles, training that would later be completed at the Academia de Barcelona.

    • 1782: promoted to Sargento Mayor;

    • 1784: promoted to Teniente Coronel;

    • 1789: promoted to Coronal;

    • 1794: promoted to General de brigada;

    • 1795: promoted to Mariscal de campo;

    • 1802: promoted to Teniente General;

    • 1808: promoted to Capitán General.

Spanish Enlisted Ranks

In regards to other ranks, Osprey's Spanish Army of the Napoleonic Wars (1) 1793-1808 (pp 19-20) list the official establishment of Spanish line infantry regiments (in the early 1790's) as:

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Based on the cognate names of the modern Spanish ranks I suggest that these other ranks were names as, in increasing seniority:

  • Soldado

  • Carabinier (cavalry only); possibly also Soldado primero (infantry only) though as yet unattested in my research for the late 18th and early 19th century.

  • Cabo

  • Cabo primero

  • Sargento

  • Sargento primero

  • Alférez (En: ensign: commissioned cavalry equivalent of Subteniente)

Osprey's Spanish Armies of the Napoleonic Wars notes (pp 17) that the officer ranks were allocated one third each to:

  • promotion from the ranks (but generally restricted from rising higher than Capitán;

  • purchase by the middle class; and

  • purchase by the nobility

although (1) proof of noble descent was supposed to have been provided by all cavalry officers; and (2) virtually all ranks of Coronel and above were held only by those with noble descent (though matrilineal descent several generations back from the Duke of Parma or Duke of Alba was probably sufficient).

Exactly what rank (and where in line of command) the additional appointments sat remains unclear to me for now:

  • trumpeter (cavalry), kettle drummer (cavalry), or drummer (infantry)

  • drum major (infantry) or trumpet major (cavalry)

  • master armouorer

  • master saddler (cavalry)

  • chaplain

  • surgeon

Earlier research of mid-19th century British practices suggests that these are appointments with a minimum rank requirement (I'm guessing Cabo primero for most, Sargento for those styled major, master, or requiring higher education) and a small pay supplement.


IE: Why the nomenclature Major recur across enlisted, warranted, and commissioned ranks with varying implied seniority

Without a more specific time period, let's review quickly the history and development of the modern infantry arms' command and organizational structure in Western Europe from say 1568 (start of Eighty Years War) until 1815. I believe this will illustrate the basic pattern that then can be adjusted for national variations between Spain, Britain, France and Prussia.

As we leave the late Medieval period the basic components of an army are a mixture of medieval levies and *mercenary companies. In both of these it had became common to denote the senior enlisted man in each company of about 100 or so men as the (company) Sergeant-Major. Reporting directly to the Captain of the company, he functioned as a chief-of-staff and was the third *officer of the company, after the Captain and his Lieutenant. Larger organization of the army through most of the 15th century remains an ad hoc structure of wings and attack waves, with armies small enough to comfortably travel on a single road.

With the development of pike-and-ball warfare, and larger (professional!) armies, mobility on both attack and defence returns to the battlefield. To facilitate this a more permanent grouping of companies (now usually standardized at 100-120 men) into battle-groups (battalions) develops, with these battalions in turn brigaded (usually three at a time) to provide a two level hierarchy of command and control. Mimicking the historical organization of our companies, these battalions and brigades in turn appoint a Battalion Sergeant-Major (still an enlisted man) and a Brigade Sergeant-Major (now a commissioned officer).

The distinction between rank and title or office is just developing, and the command structure remains quite simple, with each brigade command structure something like this (assuming for discussion three battalions of four companies each):

  • 1 * Colonel (Sp.: Coronel)

  • 1 * Lieutenant Colonel (Sp.: Teniente coronel)

  • 13 * Captain (Sp.: Capitán) - the most senior holding the title of Brigade Sergeant-Major (Sp., eventually: Commandante), acting as chief-of-staff to the Colonel, and commanding the third battalion.

  • 12 * Lieutenant (Sp.: Teniente)

  • n * Sergeant (Sp.: Sargento)

    • 3 (one per battalion) holding the title of Battalion Sergeant-Major (Sp.: Subofficiel mayor) and acting as chief-of-staff for each battalion with responsibility for logistics of the battalion: ammunition in battle and food on the march.

    • 12 (1 per company) holding the title of Company Sergeant-Major (Sp.: Subteniente), acting as chief-of-staff for each captain with responsibility for discipline and training of the men


  1. The strict assignment of ranks and titles to hierarchical responsibility strictly limits availability of the ranks and titles.

  2. At this time the epithet sergeant still retains its late Medieval euphemism of seniority and command - but that will soon wane as the term becomes restricted to non-commissioned rank.

  3. The new title of Brigade Sergeant-Major is the first with command, in addition to support, responsibility. This also likely relates to the looming drop of the Sergeant from the position name.

  4. At various times the structure above may or may not have a regiment (or *demi-brigade) structure between the brigade and the battalion. This varies by era and nationality, but does not affect the general concept above. It's presence makes brigades about twice as strong.

However our armies of the time are already much larger than a brigade or even a small number of brigades. In some countries (notably United Kingdom and Austro-Hungary) the right to be paid to raise a regiment was sold by the crown, with regimental commissions resold in turn by the Colonels/Inhabers. At a national level the need arose for general officers, those holding commissions directly from the crown and with responsibility and authority over multiple regiments and brigades. (It is best at this time to think of the word general as an adjective rather than, as currently, a noun.)

  • In English usage there was a single General Officer for each independent command of an army, with a Lieutenant General (Officer) as his second in command and the Sergeant-Major General as his chief-of-staff.

  • The French regarded, through this time period, all commands above that of a division (General de Division being the equivalent of English Major General) as appointments; so that rank was the highest available.

    Strictly speaking the style Marshal of the Empire was always merely a title; but as all the holders uniformly refused to accept orders or direction from any officer not holding it, it became a de facto rank if not a de jure one.

  • The Spanish modelled it as an upgraded company commanded by a Captain General assisted by a Lieutenant General and a Mariscal de campo (the latter being renamed in 1889, after the French model, as General de división).

  • The Prussians under Frederick likewise modelled the independent army as (a collection of) companies (ie wings or columns), each commanded by a General der Infanterie, der Cavalerie, or der Artillerie and assisted by a Lieutenant General. (The branch names in the title had no battlefield command significance, but merely signified rank and perhaps the origin of the possessor.) As noted in that link Frederick had no use for the rank of Feldmarschall since that authority was always personally vested in himself.

  • The Austrians innovate with the Field Marshal assisted by an Lieutenant Field Marshal.

As armies became too large to travel on a single road and are divided into columns (the less flexible precursor of Napoleon's Corps d'Armee), each in turn is the responsibility of a Lieutenant General (or equivalent), with the Austrian cavalry column commanded by a General of Cavalry. However they all (initially) retain the title of Sergeant-Major General as that of the chief-of-staff of the (independent) army. This brings us to the early Napoleonic period, when the Sergeant- prefix is dropped from the commissioned titles to yield:

  • Brigade Sergeant-Major becomes first Brigade Major and then just Major; and

  • Sergeant-Major General becomes Major General.

I have made some generalizations here based on the English etymology of the ranks and titles. More complex national (and branch: artillery vs cavalry vs artillery) variations exist. The French (singularly I believe) retain Major General as a title rather than a rank, dating back to the appointment of Berthier as "The Major General of the Grand Army" by Napoleon - with the rank being Generale de Division.

Of import for specific Spanish usage: the rank of Captain General was upgraded in 1999 from a 4-star equivalent to a 5-star equivalent for conformity with NATO usage, with a new 4-star rank of General of the Army (General de Ejército) interceded in its place. Spanish terminology varies slightly, with specifically the rank of Major being termed Commandante.

The above summarizes four nationalities, several times as many sovereign states, and nearly three hundred years from the mid-16th to early 19th centuries, for west of the Elbe and south of the Baltic. There will be exceptions: by nationality, by branch, by time period, by personal style of the commanding officer, and even by regiment. To cover every exception would be the work of decades, and the size of an encyclopedia.

Hopefully the discussion above provides sufficient context and structure for understanding the contemporary usage of that time period and place - so that for example when reading Saski and seeing the constant address "To The Major General ..." one understands why there was only one officer, Berthier, to be addressed as such.

  • 1
    Holy Shit! This is incredibly fascinating. Any idea how the ten year old thing happened I am seriously curious at this point. Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 6:53
  • @TanzaniteDragoness: As with Royal Navy midshipman appointments of a similar age - for early seniority. Most promotions up to Teniente Coronal were seniority based, within one's regiment ; absent combat losses this could take a decade or two. The father being accomplished and the boy having shown interest, the lad was commissioned in hope that he would then be eligible for promotion to Sargento Mayor by his mid- to late-twenties and past the bottleneck at Capitain. Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 9:23

The closest thing I could find was a New York Times Article dates 1862 which described the military forces of Spain, with reference to ranks. These ranks were probably replicated throughout the Spanish Empire.

The general officers of the Spanish Army at the present time consist of

Captain-Generals.................................. 10

Lieutenant-Generals............................... 61

Marshals of Camp..................................142



The Staff of the Army comprises: 3 brigadiers, 9 colonels, 12 lieutenant-colonels, 25 commandants, 60 captains, and 40 lieutenants.

The Royal Corps of Halberdiers consists of 43 officers, and 240 rank and file. Total, 283 men.

The Infantry comprises 5,972 officers, and 164,000 rank and file, making a total of 109,972 men. They are organized as follows:

Forty regiments of the line of two battalions.

One regiment of three battalions. permanently stationed at Ceuta.

Twenty battalions of Chasseurs.

Eighty battalions of reserve, (provinciales.)

During the war in Africa, these eighty battalions of reserve furnished 60,000 men, with 1,613 officers.

The Cavalry comprises 968 officers, and 14,600 rank and file. Total, 15,568 men, with 14,710 horses. There are also 376 men belonging to the General School of Cavalry. The organization is as follows:

Four regiments of Carabineers.

Four regiments of Cuirassiers.

Six regiments of Lancers.

Four regiments of Chasseurs.

Two regiments of Hussars.

Two squadrons of Chasseurs.

Four squadrons of Remounts.

The twenty regiments are each divided into three squadrons, with 520 men in each squadron.

The Artillery comprises 689 officers and 11,680 rank and file. Total number of men 12,369, with 2,600 horses. They are divided as under:

Five regiments of foot Artillery.

Four brigades of mounted Artillery.

Two brigades of mountain Artillery.

One brigade of horse Artillery.

Five brigades of foot Artillery, (fixed in garrisons.)

The Engineers comprise 256 officers and 3,760 rank and file. Total, 4,016 men. They are divided into two regiments, of two battalions each.

The Gendarmerie, or civil guard, comprise 451 officers and 12,500 men. Total, 12,951, with 1,500 horses.

The Militia of the Canaries is divided into six battalions of Provinciales, three sections of ditto, and seventeen companies of artillery. The entire force of this militia is 225 officers and 7,104 rank and file. Total, 7,329 men.

The Corps of Carabineers comprises 499 officers and 11,285 rank and file. Total 11,784 men, with 1,200 horses.

The Corps of Catalonia contains 16 officers and 500 rank and file. Total, 516 men.

The total military force of Spain is as under:

Men. Horses.

Royal Corps of Halberdiers........ 285 --

The Infantry...................169,972 --

The Cavalry.................... 15,568 14,710

The Artillery.................. 12,369 2,600

The Engineers.................. 4,016 --

The Gendarmerie................ 12,951 1,500

Militia of the Canaries........ 7,329 --

Corps of Carabineers........... 11,784 1,200

Corps of Catalonia............. 516 --

Total.......................... 234,788 20,010

Of the total number of soldiers 9,119 are officers and 225,669 rank and file.

  • This is close to being the answer but only addresses officers. I hope to see the Spanish terms and in strict order.
    – user18968
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 5:26

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